David Brooks and American Science

David Brooks has a pretty distinguished resume for a journalist: reporter for the Wall Street Journal, senior editor at the Weekly Standard, commentator on National Public Radio, and, since 2003, columnist at the New York Times. However, while he spent the last two decades making his name as a conservative political analyst, Brooks has dedicated the last few months to reinventing himself – as a science popularizer.

To those who’ve been paying attention, this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Thomas Nagel, for example, describes Brooks with wicked ambivalence as a well-known “aficionado of research in the social sciences.” More likely to raise eyebrows is the seeming rapidity with which Brooks has shifted the bulk of his attention to reading, aggregating, and promulgating such research: he’s devoted most of his recent columns (like one today) to it, re-initiated his defunct blog to provide daily recourse for it, and, most significantly, dedicated a recent book to it (of which he broke off a preview in the New Yorker in January, and about which he gave a TED talk that just went live this week).

The book is called The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, and it purports to blend the latest scientific research on human nature – mostly from psychology, but also from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and so on – with a (fictional) story about two characters, Harold and Erica, whose entire lives play out in the present day.

This plot device serves a number of functions: it allows Brooks to (ostensibly) “leaven” the scientific material, provides him with a narrative arc, and lends specificity to the particular brand of social-commentary-cum-Seinfeld-humor that he usually serves up in abstracted riffs on Whole Foods and Great Danes (see his column, his TED talk, or his previous book, Bobos in Paradise, for examples).

The story behind the story – and Brooks’ major point – is that understanding human nature and its greatest assets (“Love, Character, and Achievement”) means understanding our unconscious – both collective and individual. How? By assimilating studies across a wide swath of social- and natural-scientific disciplines that are, Brooks argues, already coalescing around these questions, forming what he dubs a “New Humanism” (we seem to get one of these a generation!).

Brooks has been tracking this new “paradigm” – his word – since at least 2008, and sees in our “cognitive age” the potential for a revolution in self-understanding on par with the impact of Freud’s work – only, as he said at TED, “more accurate.” It will mean replacing the guiding principles of thinkers from the French Enlightenment with those of their Scottish contemporaries – replacing Cartesian rationalism with Humean empiricism – by turning to the cognitive sciences to correct for the fact that “the conscious mind … gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”

Now, it goes without saying that this impulse is nothing new – Brooks is in many ways just repeating the Enlightenment call for a “Newton of the mind,” and the title of his book is more-or-less lifted from an influential textbook in social psychology, now in its tenth edition. It also ignores the reflexive problem inherent in cognitive justifications for non-cognitivism. Still, Brooks’ ostensible contribution is his fusion of the scientific and the personal, a burgeoning theory laid out in narrative terms (self-consciously) analogous to Rousseau’s Emile.

It should also come as no surprise that he’s been rewarded for these efforts with more than his fair share of ridicule. Blogging biologist (and infamous curmudgeon) PZ Myers has lobbed a grenade over at Salon.com, while the renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel filleted Brooks just as finely (if more skilfully and interestingly) in the latest Sunday Book Review. Both reviewers take the book to task for its composition: “fiction is not Brooks’s métier,” avers Nagel, while Myers puts it a bit more..frankly: “it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls,” the upshot of which is “a battle between two clashing fairy tales to see which one would bore us or infuriate us first.”

While both reviewers also take issue with the theory underlying the book, they do so for different reasons. Myers, the scientist, reads it through the lens of Snow’s Two Cultures. As he writes toward the end: “The technicalities don’t illuminate the story in any way, and the story undercuts the science.” Nagel’s critique is different: rather than cite Brooks for failing in his effort to give scientific findings personal meaning, as Myers does, Nagel questions the desire to do so in the first place: “Life, morality and politics are not science,” he concludes, “but their improvement requires thought” – thought, more precisely, about the ends of inquiry and of life.

For the record, I side more with Nagel than with Myers, but I’ll leave their critiques to the readers. What I’m more interested in – and what I hope connects this post to the blog’s themes – is Brooks’ social-scientific turn and what it means. He has turned to results in psychology and elsewhere in part out of a genuine interest in the goings-on of the cognitive sciences, but also (and more significantly) out of a sense of frustration with our moral-social world. This is, to me, an interesting move for a number of reasons. Let me focus on one aspect for now:

Brooks shares his pessimism about the atomistic and narcissistic “way we live now” with the authors of another recent book: Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus’s All Things Shining, a popular-philosophical account of the vacuum of meaning in our secular culture – how we arrived at it, why it’s bad, and how we might climb out of it. (I should note, too, that similar themes are explored in a book I’ve mentioned on this blog before – Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture).

Why does this matter? Both Brooks and Kelly/Dreyfus find fault with a supposedly quintessential “individualism” in today’s world. To me, what’s interesting is not their shared diagnosis, but where they turn as they seek to prescribe something for the ailment they’ve uncovered.

After laying out our predicament as they see it, Kelly and Dreyfus provide a roller-coaster ride through the Western canon, from the epics of the Ancient Greeks to David Foster Wallace’s unfinished version of the same, tracing out the decline of the sacred with the rise of introspection and an autonomous sense of the self. It’s a fun read, and by the conclusion, they’ve ended up in a weird place: professional sports. It’s here, they say, that we experience the sacred most often in our secular world, in a collective emotional response they christen with the unfortunate moniker “whooshing up.” March Madness indeed…

Brooks himself had nothing but praise for the book, in part because he sees it as accurately portraying the social reality to which he sees himself as providing the psycho-scientific complement. Now this is interesting: the books seek out a sense of human nature in very different places, one in the likes of Augustine and Melville, the other from Science articles. There’s no neuroscience in All Things Shining (this despite Kelly’s professional interest in it), and The Social Animal has no place for “The White Whale.”

And yet Brooks, at least, sees their projects as complementary (no comment, yet, in the other direction) – both familiarize readers with vast, often imposing literatures from which we might gather up meaning and a sense of community. While Brooks might sell us moderns a bit short (“One of the most cognitively demanding things we do is buy furniture: it’s really hard to imagine a sofa, how it’s going to look in your house.”), and while he still has some answering to do (for Nagel), I’m intrigued by his reaching into the social and cognitive sciences for the problems he – along with others – perceives in society today.

NOTE: I was going to continue our focus on Errol Morris and Tom Kuhn by linking our previous posts (here, here, and here) to some recent work by Paul Forman on science, technology, and postmodernity (here) – but then I saw this Brooks business and couldn’t help myself. All this is to say, more on “incommensurability” and its links (Whiggish and otherwise) with postmodernism soon…

4 thoughts on “David Brooks and American Science

  1. Will Thomas

    The thing I find interesting about Brooks is that he proceeds from the same assumption as STS and much HoS that a dominant strain of thought is tainted by a kind of rationalist fallacy.

    As a conservative, Brooks is closer to the origins of this line of argument in the reaction to the French Revolution, and later in the anti-totalitarian thought of people like Hayek and Popper (which finds its way to the present mainly I gather via Brooks's hero, William Buckley).

    It seems to me that the key difference in the current manifestation of this argument (is it an argument?) is that Brooks grounds his solution in a cognitive realism derived from experimental social science, while STS grounds its solutions in an intellectual realism derived from cultural anthropology, and some strands of philosophy (Wittgenstein, Mannheim, Kuhn, SSK…).

    I wonder if Brooks would be more inclined to view the STS view as akin to his, or whether he would view its emphasis on the prospect of people hashing things out among themselves once they've been alerted to the diversity of their ways of thinking as simply a variation of the rationalist fallacy?

    Since the politics of the Brooks and STS positions are divergent, I'm guessing he'd go with the latter. Maybe someone attending the Brooks session at the Harvard Kennedy school (moderated by Sheila Jasanoff!) could do a little prodding on this point?

    Also of interest: are STS people drawn in by Brooks's anti-rationalist-fallacy line of thought, or are they put off by his resort to social science as a basis for an alternative?

    Anyway, I tend to think of the anti-rationalist-fallacy argument as a bit of a canard, which steamrolls the nuanced thinking in policy history to make way for the rote application of “template” commentary on whatever issue happens to be on the agenda.


  2. Hank

    Hi Will: Thanks for the comment. I was going to hold off on discussing this until a later post (and I probably still will, for the most part), but I *am* intending to be at the Brooks/STS event, which is following up on a huge STS summit — also convened by Jasanoff's Program — the previous week. The proximity and shared audience of the two events should provide enough fodder for a post reflecting on their connections.

    As to the anti-rationalist-fallacy argument being a canard: while I agree that (perhaps especially in Brooks' case) it provides a template for simple answers to complex (or nuanced) questions, I still think there's something to the claim that it can provide an important corrective to our conscious, rational selves to assign themselves the starring role in historical episodes. There's a big gap between musing about this and finding a way to work it into our scholarship – given the reflexivity problem I mentioned and that Nagel obliquely raises – but it's something worth exploring (I think)..


  3. Lukas


    leaving aside the question of whether cognitive psychology, neuroscience, etc. can be trusted to tell us what's *really* going on inside of our heads, does Brooks even get it right?

    I am no expert on these fields (as opposed to, er. Dinosaurs!), but having watched his TED talk and read his NY Times piece I am not sure I recognize what he is talking about as being representative of what most psychologists and neuroscientists think. Am I wrong or is Brooks way out in left field?


  4. Hank

    Hi Lukas: My last effort at responding got zapped by Blogger, so I'll just reiterate it really quickly here.

    I had three responses to your query. They were:

    1. Doesn't matter. What interests me is not whether Brooks summarizes and amalgamates the findings correctly, but that he does so at all. In particular, I'm intrigued that he shares his diagnosis of a current malaise with a lot of people who *wouldn't* reach to the social sciences in response.

    2. Not sure. He's been accused of cherry-picking, gullibility, and mis-interpretation, but what really gets me is the presentation. Especially in his “Palooza” post, it's all just a laundry list! Granting that he might be right, I still don't see what the point is: is he arguing that we're seeing a new paradigm (as he does in TED), or something else?

    3. Let's not “leave aside” your first question (or at least not in the way you propose). Rather than move beyond it to ask if he's correct, let's move beyond it (with Nagel) to ask, “So what?” That is, assuming *someone* could do something similar to this and do it well, where does that get us?

    Brooks still needs to import assumptions about where we should be heading – about the sort of results we should let guide our behavior – and also needs to defend against results that seem to reinforce generally-agreed-upon faults and sins of character. This is similar to the issue Dreyfus and Kelly raise at the end of their book – in celebrating “whooshing up,” they need to distinguish a “good” whoosh (MLK rally, Wimbledon) from a “bad” one (Hitler rally, dog-fight).

    How do they do it? Well, they kind of punt on it, and I think Brooks might well do the same when confronted with Nagel's challenge. Or he might not – I guess I'll see what he does at Harvard in a few weeks.



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